A way to judge sustainability credentials of businesses that harvest from ecosystems

Back in 2016 I was undertaking a BSc study on how to assess the sustainability credentials of commercial brands selling produce in the UK. Criteria to assess these companies were formed by way of student discussions through a wiki, which in some respects functioned very similar to this website, with each student pitching in with ideas, criticisms and agreements. What resulted is, to my mind, a set of well-formulated questions which any discerning consumer can pose to a brand website, assessing for themselves how ‚Äúeco‚ÄĚ their consumer products really are.

So the point of this post is to provide Better Century users with an insight to this process and find out if this is actually quite a useful topic to communicate… Will readers use this to help them make brand choices? Will these exact criteria disseminate throughout the community and be applied to the purchases of groceries, household or lifestyle items? And maybe this will prove a set of criteria which can be improved upon and wanted to be applied multiple times to a wide range of products via Better Century… I don’t know, but I hope you find this interesting at least!

Four years ago, I chose to concentrate efforts on assessing how sustainable John West tuna really are. Posting this here, I should add that the outcomes are solely the opinions of the student, being me, and have been limited by the amount of detail that can be obtained by a member of the public who can only base opinion on a website and internet searching. The study proved that an environmentally literate undergrad can find worrying flaws in at least the communication of the environmental and social responsibility of a market-leading brand. My view of this brand was shaped by the study, which showed some merit to the company, but ultimately found lacking the communication of facts that would back up how sustainably they harvest a food species (specifically for the study - skipjack tuna).

The whole overview I feel is too much to reproduce in this post and is now outdated, but below are each of the criteria against which John West were judged ‚Äď they failed to meet the criteria in all but one case. I have reproduced the study‚Äôs outcomes based on the first, Criteria A, at the end of this article as an example of how someone may judge the evidence for sustainability of a business based on a company website. Any Better Century member would be welcome to provide feedback on how useful this means of deconstructing a website is to their selves as discerning consumers.

Criteria A.

Does the organization’s website provide evidence, links or references through which support for their sustainable exploitation of target species can be easily identified and examined?

Criteria B.

Does the evidence provided by the organization’s website explain their claims in an understandable way or are they hiding behind jargon and/or greenwashing?

Criteria C.

Does the supporting information identify how the species or ecosystem is being exploited sustainably, and does this agree with the concept of this practice as defined within the university module?

(To explain: my university module would define information such as; the current health of the targeted populations, reports of numbers harvested over a time scale, or how many total species within the ecosystems are targeted; as evidence to show whether a food species is being harvested sustainably)

Criteria D.

Is it identified through the supporting information as to how the exploitation impacts on the ecosystem as a whole and have these impacts been considered by the organisation?

Criteria E.

Does a search of the web identify any evidence or opinions to the contrary of the organization’s claim for sustainable exploitation of the species and ecosystem?

Criteria F.

Does the organization’s website indicate that the organization has close ties and working relationships with independent scientific bodies that can monitor and advise on the environmental impacts of its work?

Criteria G.

Does the organization’s website indicate that they make use of governance and skills from human populations local to the areas affected by their exploitation activities and is there evidence of socio-economic benefits to those human populations?

Criteria A ‚Äď the section report in full (2016):

Does the organization’s website provide evidence, links or references through which support for their sustainable exploitation of target species can be easily identified and examined?

John West provide a large section of their website dedicated to explaining why sustainable fishing is important for their business and how the company is achieving this in practice. It does this by primarily backing up claims with i.e. simple explanations of their fishing techniques and the scale of their fishing worldwide, using text statements and easily digestible diagrams. However, any delving deeper into the sustainability of fish stocks in particular localities cannot be achieved in any detail through the information provided. Apart from the simple facts and diagrams referred to above, John West concentrate in using referrals to the meeting of industry standards and legality requirements, alongside references to their work with WWF and MSC to provide the ‚Äėevidence‚Äô that they are fishing sustainably.

There are links within the sustainability sections to such impressive sounding documents as ‚Äėthe official partnership report‚Äô ‚Äď referring to John West‚Äôs partnership with WWF, and also a ‚Äėseafood charter‚Äô. The former of these is a document that details reasoning behind the partnership and what they aim to achieve by agreeing on the charter, including commitments John West has entered into, resulting from the partnership so far. The latter really only amounts to a one-page bullet pointed document making claims about what the partnership is aiming to achieve. Neither of these gives any scientific data about the areas where John West source their tuna, the populations of the target species in those areas, or how ecosystems are affected.

Additional references are given, slightly hidden, at the end of ‚Äėthe official partnership report‚Äô. These refer to such resources that explain; how to avoid IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishery products, traceability principles, measures to stop illegal fishing, seafood charters, key facts about fisheries in transition to sustainability, guidelines for developing fishery improvement projects, and tuna procurement guidelines. Although interesting in their own rights and indicating some rigorous efforts to meet sustainability standards, none of these link to any scientific analysis of the fisheries targeted when John West harvest their skipjack tuna.